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Guidelines for shopping on the Web rooted in common sense


If there's any single truth to be told about the Internet and this past holiday shopping season it's this: Electronic commerce is taking hold.

Recent press reports have chronicled how holiday shopping more than tripled for Christmas 1998.

Computers are turning into must-have appliances, much like VCRs and microwave ovens, so its inevitable that most Americans will at some point use their computer for electronic commerce.

Electronic commerce (or simply e-commerce in Net Speak) is the fancy name for buying stuff online.

It's really not that much different than walking into your local convenience store and buying milk, bread and soda pop. You get your selections, give the clerk your money or credit card, they ring it up and you're on your way.

Online, there are a few differences -- but the results are the same.

The real question facing most first-time Internet shoppers is how to tell if the Web site you want to buy from is a legitimate business and not a rip-off?

There are a number of steps you should take to protect yourself, most of which are common sense.

MAKE IT SAFE. Safe shopping over the Internet means using some of the same principles you use for safe shopping in the "real world."

These include:

Make sure you're using a Web browser that supports a security mode for electronic transactions.

If you're using Netscape Navigator 3.0 (or higher) or Internet Explorer 3.0 (or higher) you're assured that you have software that can encrypt, or scramble, your purchasing information when buying online.

If you're using an older version of either Web browser, you can upgrade by downloading a more up-to-date version at no charge from Netscape (http://home.netscape.com) or Microsoft (www.microsoft.com).

BROWSER CLUES. Both popular Web browsers have visual clues that let you know if you're order is going to be transmitted to a Web site securely.

Netscape Navigator 2 and 3 have a "key" icon at the bottom of the screen. If the Web page you are visiting is operating in a secure mode, the "key" icon will be one solid key; in normal unsecured mode it appears to be broken.

Netscape Navigator 4.0 and higher has a padlock icon located in the left lower corner of the screen. If the Web page you are on is in "secure" mode, the padlock indicates it is locked; otherwise, the padlock appears to be open.

Internet Explorer 4.0 displays a padlock in the status bar at the bottom edge of the screen when it is operating in secure mode.

If the visual clues are missing when you're about to make a purchase on the Web, you'll next need to determine if the Web site you're buying from supports secure online credit card transactions.

In nearly all cases, the business will spell this information out very plainly on their Web site.

If the site doesn't support secure transactions, I'd think long and hard about sending credit card information to them over the Internet. The security features will scramble your credit card information in case it is intercepted making it unreadable to anyone but the Web site you send it to.

If all else fails, call the company by telephone to place your order.

If you're like me, you don't need to add more credit card debt, but doing so offers some additional protection.

Paying with a credit or charge card online puts the purchase under the protection of the Fair Credit Billing Act. This law gives consumer the right to dispute charges and in some cases and withhold payment while the claims are being investigated.

When evaluating a company you want to do business with, look for the company's physical location, including telephone and fax numbers. This information is handy in case you need to follow-up your order with a phone call.

You can also use this information to check the company's reliability with consumer groups like the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org).

And don't hesitate to call or e-mail the business if you need additional information about a company's products or services.

Keep records of your purchase; print out or write down the complete details of your purchase, including date and the date the company states online that you may expect to receive your goods.

And just like the "real world," make sure the Web site spells out the company's return policy in case you are unhappy with your purchase.

MAC NEWS. Microsoft recently unveiled a new version of its Internet Explorer Web browser for the Apple Macintosh computer.

The new Internet Explorer 4.5 offers features not available to users of the PC version of Internet Explorer.

The list includes:

Page Holder, an area that displays a site's links on one panel on the side of a page. It allows you to browse a site without using the "back" button.

Form Autofill, which allows common information (name, address, etc.) to be automatically filled in online forms found on a Web page.

Microsoft officials are also touting an improved version of its Outlook Express software for handling e-mail.

The latest Microsoft news for Macintosh computers can be found at MacTopia, a new Microsoft Web site launched to promote use of Microsoft software on Macintosh hardware.

Visit MacTopia on the Web at www.microsoft.com/mac.

AOL BONANZA. During the pre-Christmas shopping blitz, business analysts said that this was going to be "the year of electronic commerce."

Well, that statement at least rings true for America Online.

Users of AOL, the country's largest Internet provider, spent $1.2 billion on line this shopping season, the company reported.

The most popular shopping page? The "Toys, Kids and Babies" category, followed closely by apparel.

NO JOKING MATTER. April 1 of any year is traditionally a day when pranksters deliver their latest April Fool's stunts.

But owners of PCs running Microsoft Windows may find April 1, 2001 no laughing matter.

Microsoft confirmed this week that a programming bug would cause some Windows applications to display the wrong time. The bug causes the computer to display the time as one hour ahead of the actual time, and can affect virtually ever PC running Windows

The bug was traced to a software library file -- MSVCRT.DLL -- that checks when to start daylight savings time.

A patch is being developed, but it's complicated by the fact that many programs install their own versions of this DLL file. For example, my home computer has four different versions of MSVCRT.DLL -- only one was installed with the original operating system.

But Microsoft says a simple patch that it is developing will take care of "90 percent" of all applications.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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